On 4 September, Zimbabwean President Emerson Mnangagwa was, inevitably, inaugurated for a second term in office after an election widely derided as fraudulent. Few elections in the history of Zimbabwe have demonstrated integrity; hopes for a democratic blossoming after the collapse of repressive colonial Rhodesia were crushed by nearly 40 years of autocracy orchestrated by President Robert Mugabe.
But under Mugabe the Southern African Development Community (SADC), fortified by joint memories of the fight against colonialism, tended to rally around Zanu-PF when international criticism of Mugabe’s electoral misconduct reached fever pitch.
By contrast, there are plentiful signs that regional goodwill towards Mnangagwa, who replaced Mugabe in a 2017 coup, is close to being exhausted. For the first time, official African observers of the election appeared almost as critical as their European and American counterparts.
In a damning report, the historically compliant SADC observer mission, this time led by forthright former Zambian vice-president Nevers Mumba, rendered its dismal verdict. “Some aspects of the [Presidential, Parliamentary, and Local Government] Elections fell short of the requirements of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, the Electoral Act, and the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections (2021),” it said.
The mission noted that just 64% of the voting stations observed opened on time. It pointed to restrictive access to the voter roll, hindering auditing of citizens’ entitlement to vote. It observed limitations on freedom of expression and assembly, and highlighted concerns about voter intimidation. The African Union/Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa observer mission was similarly critical, highlighting the arrest of opposition activists.
Most SADC presidents miss inauguration
The end result of this barrage of African criticism was not the re-run of the election that the opposition Citizens Coalition for Change has been pushing for, but was in its own way quietly radical. When Mnangagwa was inaugurated in Harare, a dozen SADC leaders simply failed to show up, including those from close neighbours Zambia, Botswana and Namibia.
Mnangagwa still had a few well-wishers to draw on – including presidents Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Filipe Nyusi of Mozambique and Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa. The latter’s appearance even allowed Fikile Mbabulala, secretary-general of the African National Congress, to indulge in some hoary cliches about Zanu-PF leading the good fight against “imperialist puppets”. But the implications of the stay-at-homes were clear – business as usual in Zimbabwe no longer works for the region at large.
Why is that message being sent now? Partly the answer is generational. Direct memories of the region’s colonial struggles are fading, and the current generation of leaders are less willing to give their erstwhile allies a free pass based on anti-colonial solidarity alone.
While Mugabe enjoyed a residual popularity dating back to the struggle, the legitimacy he enjoyed in the region does not appear to have rubbed off on his 81-year-old successor – perhaps as a result of the military-backed 2017 coup that brought him to power.
A serious drag on Southern Africa
But perhaps more important in shifting regional perceptions is Zimbabwe’s continuing economic failure. Despite early promises, Mnangagwa has overseen an unreformed economy that remains a serious drag on the SADC’s potential.
Instead of capitalising on the wave of international goodwill directed his way after the ousting of Mugabe, the inflexible Mnangagwa has squandered a golden opportunity to attract foreign direct investment. His economic mismanagement has been characterised by wild currency fluctuations, inflation, low growth and the indulgence of vested interests. Given the conduct of the election it is hard to see how he can unlock much-needed funding with crucial multilateral lenders like the IMF.
For the region, then, the flawed election was a sign that nothing has changed. Another sign was the unveiling of a new cabinet packed with Mnangagwa’s family and friends. While there is little to suggest that Mnangagwa will change his ways for the good of his people, SADC’s leaders have sent a valuable message that his failure will not go unnoticed.
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